Gibson’s trusty J-45 emerged during World War II. Now the guitar itself is under fire.
The only photograph I carry in my wallet is of a Gibson J-45.
The dark acoustic guitar appealed to me on a visceral level before I even knew its name, and within a few months of pulling one off a guitar shop’s wall and playing it for the first time, the old standard flattop had seduced me. I’ve bought books, collected archives, devoured whatever research I could gather. I scan eBay auctions on my lunch break. It’s the guitar of the blues, of Guthrie and Dylan—and hopefully, one day, me. I am obsessed.
If anyone could understand my madness, it would be George Gruhn, the man who runs the famous Nashville guitar shop that carries his name. I called him on a Saturday morning and we talked about luthier-choice hardwoods and how all the good-sounding Adirondack Spruces were clear-cut to fight Nazis during World War II. When our conversation finally hit a lull, I muttered an apology for taking up too much of his time. He told me not to sweat it—his night at the Opry hadn’t kept him out too late, and he’d already fed the servals.
In case you’re not up on your eccentric house pets, servals are 40-pound mini-cheetahs that look like the product of a one-night-stand between an ocelot and a pharaoh hound. I asked Gruhn where he found such an animal, and he rattled off names of a few breeders and websites. From what I can tell, this rare African commodity is being imported to the States more and more all the time, but neither the dealers nor the owners know or care much about where the animals come from.
We like to think our prized possessions have biographies that reflect our values. But let’s be honest: Questioning the origin of a specifies isn’t a popular pastime, whether it’s a wild cat or a musical instrument. And that’s where I find myself with the J-45. Last fall, allegations arose that Gibson had been harvesting wood for its acoustics from endangered forests, flying in the face of U.S. law and years of promises from the company itself. Now I’m not just obsessed—I’m haunted.
It wasn’t a great year to be in the acoustic guitar business. The country was in its second year of a World War, and when your industry depends on timber and metal to survive, and when those happen to be the same components of airplanes and guns, guess who’s left holding the ration card? To add insult to injury, most of the people in their 20s and 30s who would buy a casual instrument were overseas—and so was 90 percent of Gibson’s guitar-making staff. With all the young bucks and good wood out of the picture, the new products were designed by the most experienced craftsman working with limited resources. The chances of something worthwhile coming out of those circumstances were slim. But despite everything, Gibson decided to introduce a brand-new flattop. They called it the J-45.
Behold a dark horse: It was a 16-inch, round-shouldered dreadnought with a sunburst finish. With smaller guitars storming the market, the J-45 was Gibson’s attempt to make a cheaper, svelter version of its classic Southern Jumbo—something to appeal to the plumbers and cattle ranchers that drooled over Martin D-28s, but couldn’t justify buying one. Gibson cobbled together a new, affordable guitar with what they had around the shop. Due to wartime rations, they used up to four pieces of spruce to make the tops. Since the look of a hardwood floor isn’t especially appealing on stringed instruments, craftsmen used a dark stain to apologize for the extra planks. But few who bought the new guitar noticed or cared: The price was right, and in a country where you couldn’t buy a pound of sugar without paperwork, the J-45 became a bestseller.
It became known as The Workhorse because it was the sturdy “everyman’s guitar” of the Gibson line. From 1942 to 1946, the J-45 nearly tripled sales of Martin’s competitor. In the 1950s and ’60s, even after rations were lifted and the economy improved, the J-45 became a standard for people playing coliseums and campfires alike. It had gained a reputation but remained affordable, mostly because it lacked any fancy trimmings—just that dark-stained spruce top, and back and sides hewn from mahogany or rosewood. Then and now, the model was never extravagant or flashy, always appealing to people who saw their guitar as a practical avatar for their lifestyle. This was the Ford F-150 of acoustic guitars: hardworking, dependable, unpretentious.
If the popular Martins of the time sounded like pure adrenaline, the J-45 sounded like warm dirt and sex. It was earthier, with less boom and more sustain. It was a guitar that could moan if you needed it to. That difference shifted the focus away from the high wail of bluegrass stages (where the D-28 reigned supreme) and into smoke-filled blues bars. When the folk boom hit in the ’60s, the performers of the time fell into two camps. Singer-songwriter Michael Penn recalls a conversation he had with Joni Mitchell about the split: “She told me there were two kinds of people back then. Those based in traditional English folk usually had a Martin. But those tied to blues always had Gibsons.”
The J-45 has been in near-continuous production for more than 65 years, hitting us at the beginning of one war and sticking around on the sidelines of another four. It’s entirely possible that the same J-45 could’ve been played by someone who shot the SS in one conflict and then, a generation later, slung over the shoulder of a kid protesting another. The guitar grew up with America, following us from blues to the Beatles to Bowie. Buddy Holly loved his. So did Piedmont bluesman John Jackson, who played the natural-finish version. Bob Dylan breathed new life into the acoustic singer/songwriter scene with his J-45; more recently, the guitar has popped up in the arms of artists as unexpected as Green Day and Hannah Montana. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy says it was the first decent guitar he ever owned, and his 1957 J-45 can be heard in every song on A Ghost is Born. When I asked him why he still performs with one, he replied frankly: “If there was one tool every singer/songwriter should have, it would be the J-45.”
Tweedy also loves what Gibson’s master luthier, Ren Ferguson, calls the “Ghost of Gibson”—that distinct tone you can only hear on these guitars in person. It’s that rich, full sound that fills a room when Gibson acoustics are played live and makes you wish you were on your third shot and someone else was driving. Folks swear it cannot be recorded, video-taped or reproduced in any way.